Diego Costa, Alberto Moreno and Dejan LovrenLiverpool hoped it would be different this time, but reality bites. Hard.

Liverpool is reeling after losing Saturday’s Premier League game against Chelsea at Anfield by a score of 2-1. Liverpool’s third defeat in a row (in all competitions) leaves it trailing league-leading Chelsea by 15 points just 11 games into the 2014-15 season.

Those Liverpool fans who were still dreaming of challenging for the Premier League title for the second-straight season knew Saturday’s game would be pivotal. A win could have started a climb into contention. A draw would have helped Liverpool keep pace with Chelsea. A loss would be nothing short of disaster.

The dreamers now will look at the standings and see a real-life horror show. Liverpool’s title hopes have faded to black less than three months into the season. A top-four finish remains the only realistic target at this point.

The game started out with great promise, as Emre Can gave Liverpool the lead after nine minutes. Can’s long-range, deflected shot beat Chelsea goalkeeper Thibault Cortois, lifting the majority of fans at Anfield into a state of ecstasy.

If Chelsea had come to defend, Can’s early goal — his first-ever for Liverpool — would draw it out of its shell and open up the game. In the minds of the dreamers, this altered scenario would favor Liverpool. Here’s where reality bit the Reds. After starting the game with a balanced approach, Chelsea went on the attack after Can’s goal and tied the score within five minutes.

Liverpool failed to mark John Terry closely, giving the Chelsea captain a free header from a corner kick. Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet saved Terry’s effort, but the rebound fell to Gary Cahill, whose follow-up shot crossed the goal line before Mignolet could bat it away.

Defensive problems cost a rampant Liverpool the title last season. The Reds have been sluggish going forward in 2014-15, which compounds each defensive mistake.

Chelsea ascended and took control of the game soon after Cahill scored. Their technical, tactical, physical and mental superiority over Liverpool swung the balance of play in their favor, and momentum stayed on the Blue side. It was no surprise when Diego Costa scored the game-winning goal in the 67th minute, nor was it shocking when Liverpool couldn’t muster a response.

The referee should have awarded Liverpool a penalty kick in the closing minutes of the game after Gary Cahill blocked Steven Gerrard’s shot with his hand. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers railed at the official’s non-call after the game.

But Liverpool would have been fortunate to earn a point against the Premier League’s most powerful team. The result was fair judging from the teams’ performances. The outcome might have been different had the teams met in a bygone era, last season or even in August. But the teams played at a time when one is marching tall through the season, while the other limps and stutters along.

The loss ends Liverpool’s terrible week in which it lost three games (two in the Premier League, one in the Champions League), confidence and a great deal of hope. The international break couldn’t have come at a better time, as Rodgers now has two weeks to right the Reds’ ship.

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Photo by Jon Super/The Associated Press